HONG KONG - Shark fin has been considered a luxury in Chinese cuisine since the Ming emperors first demanded the delicacy more than 400 years ago. However, unsustainable and barbaric methods of harvesting the fish mean shark populations are increasingly endangered.
Banning the use of shark fin
More than 150 activists braved oppressive heat Sunday to deliver a letter calling on the new head of the Hong Kong government, CY Leung, to ban the use of shark fin at official government banquets.
According to Rachel Vickerstaff of the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, the southern Chinese city is the destination for over half the shark fin traded globally - a market worth more than $500 million a year.
“Our objectives are to get some public awareness of what we’re trying to do and to let CY know why he needs to see why sharks need saving,” said Vickerstaff.
70 million sharks killed each year
Sharks are afforded some protection by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). However, Vickerstaff calculates that up to 70 million sharks are killed each year to feed the growing demand for shark fin among increasingly affluent Chinese consumers.
“The Hong Kong government has hidden behind CITES, which is pretty ineffective. CITES only has international trade restrictions on three species of shark. But the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists well over 100 species as threatened or near threatened with extinction,” added Vickerstaff.
Nowadays, shark fin is served in soups at business and wedding banquets as a symbol of status. Depending on a specimen’s quality, a bowl of shark fin soup can cost more than $100, while a dorsal fin of the prized whale shark can retail for up to $20,000.
Conservationists say the over-fishing of apex predators has a negative effect on the ocean ecosystem. But they say there is some good news. Younger generations in China are increasingly reluctant to partake of shark fin.
Nina Whittaker, a student at Li Po Chun United World College, says this is not just for conservation reasons, but also because of the brutal way fishermen harvest the fin.
“They’ll take sharks on board and cut their fins off; then throw the live sharks overboard. They can’t swim without them so it’s a painful, unpleasant death," said Whittaker. "So [you are left with] piles and piles of fins, and hundreds and hundreds of shark carcasses in the sea. It’s such a waste.”
What is more, says Whittaker, shark fin soup actually tastes pretty bland.
“Having shark fin in your soup, it’s a cultural thing to some extent - though that’s not an excuse," added Whittaker. "They have high levels of mercury, and they don’t really have that much taste: it’s basically chicken soup with jelly.”
Gary Stokes, of the marine wildlife conservation organization Sea Shepherd, says shark fin's value puts it in the same league as the narcotics and arms trade. Stokes recently filmed Hong Kong seafood merchants drying thousands of fins on the city’s sidewalks.
“A shipment had come in," he said. "Obviously it was still a bit damp and they needed to move it on to China. But instead of the secrecy they normally have - it’s all done behind closed doors; on roofs - it was out there drying on the main highway: A rough estimate; there were 41,000 fins there.”
To maintain pressure on the Hong Kong government, in the coming weeks conservation groups will present CY Leung with a statement from 40 internationally renowned scientists reiterating the environmental argument for ending the trade in shark fin.